The new Left Behind film snuck up on me. Apparently it premiered last Friday and I hadn’t even realized it. Not that I was planning on seeing it in the first place…but there it is. A simple Google search will provide all of the reviews you need; for now suffice it to say that the film will be winning no Oscars.
Despite its apparently poor quality, as an adaptation of one of the apocalyptic novels by Tim LaHaye and Terry Jenkins it has thrown related ideas into the limelight once again. So as people are talking about Nic Cage and the Rapture (two topics never before considered together in the same breath) let me share a few thoughts.
Thinking about the Rapture (a doctrine held by a significant but by no means universal number of Christians today that refers to the divine removal of believers from the Earth before the return of Christ) reminds me of an old question I pose from time to time. As a thought experiment, I will ask people to entertain the notion that God has directed them to remove a book from the Bible. The answers provided are illuminating and tend to reveal a lot about their spiritual and theological perspectives. At this point I have heard a number of different answers to my question. One of these has sometimes been the book of Revelation. Why? It is simply seen as being too contentious or distracting, taking believers away from what is really important and leading them into endless debates over minutia. And, of course, it is a particular interpretation of Revelation and other related biblical texts upon which books like the Left Behind series base their story.
While I’m not actually contending for the removal of any of the sixty-six books of the Bible, I do understand the sentiments sometimes voiced relative to Revelation. Because it and other apocalyptic writing in the Bible can lead to theological nitpicking and often play to the most paranoid portion of our spirituality, we ought to approach these materials with care and caution even as we appreciate and value them as God’s word to us.
When it comes to this recent cinematic release, it is worth further realizing that what we have in the Left Behind film filters the theology of the Rapture through at least two layers. The first of these is the dramatic frame used by the authors. Because they wanted to write more than a tract or theology book, they developed characters and made judgment calls about how the mechanics of a Rapture might work. Telling a worldwide story through the lens of individuals and detailing the specifics of how the divine action might occur means that they are deciding for the reader how they will experience and visualize related ideas in their minds’ eyes. This can and does obscure a lot and limit the way one can approach the doctrine. Just as for a generation Frodo Baggins will always be Elijah Wood, so too Left Behind will heavily influence how a person conceptualize the idea of the Rapture.
To this is added a second layer: the demands of a Hollywood film. Everyone knows that a movie is rarely if ever as good as the book. This film is likely no exception (not that the book was considered a classic in the first place). Drama requires pacing, excitement, and much more. Nuance at the level of the written page is rarely achieved in cinema. In the process of adaptation a lot of things change, which takes us another step away from the presenting doctrine itself. Realizing, therefore, that this second layer further obscures what is held by many to be a biblically-derived idea means that one should tread lightly if tempted to apply the film’s lessons to their life.
It should go without saying that Nicholas Cage should not be our theology teacher. I say this a bit tongue-in-cheek, but hear me out. This film is not a detailed or nuanced theology lecture. It is a drama (and, if Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed, one with only a 2% rating). Timothy LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins and their books are not the final arbiters of truth. Ultimately, the Christian has one main guide to faith and life: the Bible. If we are considering the quality and/or verity of a doctrine like the Rapture, it would serve us well to return to the Word to determine whether or not it should be accepted. Basing Christian theology on Left Behind alone might just be as bad as learning North myths by mean of Marvel’s Thor or imagining that any number of Hollywood’s World War II films are to be trusted as much as the work of an academic historian.
If you’re interested in what the Bible has to say, I encourage you to take a look at the relevant Scriptural passages yourself and then turn to the host of legitimate Bible scholars out there who are discussing related matters. Just make sure to base your conclusion upon reason and evidence, and not the number of explosions in a Nicholas Cage movie.
Regardless of where you land on the idea of the Rapture, I do hope that you realize the predominant motif of Revelation and related texts: God wins. Evil loses. That might not be the most dramatically engaging set of facts or have the level of apocalyptic detail required for a modern-day blockbuster, but I’ll rest in that. It is enough–more than enough–for me to conclude the following with the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”